Archive for April, 2012

1671: Zrinski and Frankopan, Croatian conspirators

1 comment April 30th, 2012 Headsman

He who dies honorably lives forever.

-Fran Frankopan

On this date in 1671, Croatian noble Fran Krsto Frankopan and his brother-in-law Petar Zrinski were beheaded by the Austrian empire at Wiener-Neustadt Prison.

The Zrinski-Frankopan Conspiracy — or Magnate Conspiracy — was the product of great powers chess in central Europe … and specifically, of the frustration of these lords in the frontier zone between the Austrian and the Ottoman Empires at being a sacrificial pawn.

Instead, they’d take control of their own destiny and be a self-sacrificial pawn.

Croatia and Hungary had been on the perimeter of Hapsburg authority for generations, and seen the rising Ottomans push well into Europe.

In the latest of innumerable wars, the Austrians had trounced the Ottomans, potentially (so the Croats and Hungarians thought) opening the door for reconquest of lost territory. Croatia in particular had been nibbled away by Ottoman incursions into a “remnant of a remnant.” Emperor Leopold I thought otherwise: he had Great Games to play in western Europe as well and didn’t find this an auspicious moment to go all in in the east.

Rather than following up his victory by trying to run the Turks out of their half of divided Hungary, or out of Transylvania, Leopold just cut an expedient peace on status quo ante terms quite a bit more favorable to Istanbul than the latter’s military position could demand.

The aggrieved nobles started looking around for foreign support to help Hungary break away.

This scheme never came to anything all that palpable, perhaps because the operation’s leading spirit Nikola Zrinski got himself killed by a wild boar on a hunt, and definitely because no other great powers wanted to get involved in the mess.

Zrinski (or Zrinyi) was also a noteworthy Croatian-Hungarian poet, as were the remaining conspirators.

The boar-slain’s younger brother Petar, his wife Katarina, and Katarina’s half-brother Fran Frankopan, also better litterateurs than conspirators, inherited the scheme’s leadership, and its penalty.


Zrinski and Frankopan in the Wiener-Neustadt Prison, by Viktor Madarasz (1864)

Royal vengeance against the plot shattered two mighty noble houses: the Zrinskis were all but destroyed by the seizure of their estates. The Frankopans — an ancient and far-flung family whose Italian Frangipani branch was even then about to yield a pope — were done as major players.

After these executions, anti-Hapsburg sentiment metastasized in Hungary into outright rebellion.

But in what was left of Croatia, the loss of the two largest landholders spelled the end of effective resistance until the era of 19th century romantic nationalism — when our day’s unfortunates were recovered as honored national heroes.

Zrinski and Frankopan are pictured on modern Croatia’s five-kuna bill, and were both reburied in Zagreb Cathedral after World War I finally claimed the Austrian Empire. (They also got memorial plaques in Wiener-Neustadt) Their mutual relation Katarina Zrinski, who avoided execution but was shut up in a convent, was a writer as well, and has ascended to the stars of founding patriotess, seemingly the go-to namesake for most any Croatian women’s civic organization. (Dudes honor the House of Zrinski by slapping the name onto sports clubs.)

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1945: Dachau Massacre

3 comments April 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Upper Bavaria — and then proceeded to summarily execute a number of its SS personnel.

The “Dachau massacre” involves several distinct incidents of wantonly killing defenseless POWs by American troops, who may have been set on edge by warnings of potential fake-surrender gambits, and then evidently went right off the rails with discovery of emaciated dead bodies around the place. In particular, a stranded transport that had been sent from Buchenwald, christened the “death train”, greeted the liberators with a 40-car phantasmagoria of horror.


“We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?'” -Private John Lee

“It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists. I couldn’t even talk.” -Lt. William Cowling

These stunned, outraged soldiers, some of them still teenagers, would soon have a bunch of disarmed German troops from the camp under their power. Uh-oh.

As the dry but shocking (and also marked “Secret”: nobody ever faced a court-martial for the incident*) U.S. Army investigation remarked, “The sight of these numerous victims would naturally produce strong mental reaction on the part of both officers and men. Such circumstances are extenuating, but are the only extenuating facts found.” (Read the entire report in this forum thread.)

The behaviors these facts propose to extenuate may also produce a strong mental reaction.

  • A Lt. William Walsh took the surrender of four SS men near one of these train cars, then forced his prisoners inside the car and shot them on the spot.
  • About seven Germans taken prisoner at the camp’s Tower B were lined up a few steps away from the tower preparatory to marching them elsewhere, when for sketchy reasons one of their American guards started shooting, and then others followed suit.
  • And the most notorious of the incidents, about 50 captured SS men were segregated from other POWs — again, by Lt. Walsh — and lined up in the camp coalyard by the wall of the hospital. There they were machine-gunned, resulting in 17 deaths before a superior officer interceded.

Another 25 to 50 guards were killed by prisoners themselves, many with the implicit blessing of American infantrymen who stood by and watched, and or the explicit blessing of Americans’ weapons on loan from sympathetic troopers.

The irony in all this was that most of the camp’s regular guards had already fled the place. The SS men whom outraged Americans were shooting down in the Dachau charnel house were Waffen-SS who had been transferred from the eastern front just days before and whose specific purpose in the camp was to surrender it to the western Allies. They probably considered this assignment far away from the vengeful Red Army a very lucky break.

It wasn’t so lucky: this is the mischance of war. But they didn’t have anything to do with Dachau’s horrors, and their deaths in a unthinking bloodlust disgraced only their executioners.

“German soldiers after their surrender as prisoners of war to American troops were summarily shot and killed by such troops.”

-Conclusion of the Army Inspector General’s report

* Court-martial charges were filed, but quashed. The whole affair remained unknown to the public until the 1980s.

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1945: Hermann Fegelein, Eva Braun’s brother-in-law

3 comments April 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Waffen-SS officer Hermann Fegelein was shot in the Reich Chancellery’s basement, or else its garden.

“One of the most disgusting people in Hitler’s circle,” in the estimation of Albert Speer, this rank opportunist had found his way there via Heinrich Himmler’s patronage.

On June 3, 1944, Fegelein married right into Hitler’s personal clique by tying the knot with Gretl Braun — sister of longtime Hitler mistress Eva Braun. Hitler and Himmler were both official witnesses.

They had a two-day wedding bash. Then the western allies landed at Normandy.

Fegelein still found plenty of time to party and womanize for the eleven remaining months that he and national socialism had a run of the place. But as a rank opportunist, he also had his antenna up for a post-Nazi arrangement by the spring of 1945. Here, his proximity to power did him no favors.

Posted directly to Hitler’s bunker as Himmler’s personal representative, the guy would have a harder time than some anonymous bureaucrat in slipping out of besieged Berlin.* When he absented himself from the bunker for two full days, Hitler himself noticed.

The guy sent to retrieve Fegelein found him drunk in a Berlin flat, hurriedly stuffing valuables into suitcases with a mystery woman who promptly disappeared out the window.

Having obviously been attempting to desert, Fegelein was in a fix when he was hauled back to the bunker.

Unluckily for Fegelein, this was also the date that Reuters reported news that his patron Himmler had attempted to surrender Nazi Germany to the U.S. and Britain — news that made its way into the hands of a livid Hitler. You’ve got Fegelein trying to defect (incidentally inviting Eva Braun to come with), his boss is selling right out, and he’s consorting with a potential mole.

According to James O’Donnell, Hitler and his loyal satrap Martin Bormann were obsessed with leaks in the last days of the war, and the circumstances of Fegelein’s capture conspired to make him look like a potential source of those leaks.

As the Fuhrerbunker consumed itself in paranoia, Fegelein — only slowly sobering up — disappeared into the hands of the Gestapo, and was shot. His body, presumably abandoned with other casualties of little interest to Berlin’s conquerors, was never recovered.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south on the same day, Hitler’s longtime Italianate partner Benito Mussolini was getting his. It would be a stark warning to Germany’s fading dictator not to let the same fate befall him.

Hours after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, his sister-in-law Eva finally wed Adolf Hitler … and on April 30, those two took their lives together.

A week after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, on May 5, his widow bore him a posthumous daughter: Eva Barbara Fegelein, named after the child’s late famous aunt.

* Fegelein had actually been out in Bavaria with Himmler — “safe”, relative to what happened to him — but taken a hazardous flight back into besieged Berlin just a couple of weeks before his death. He was either trying to be Himmler’s dutiful personal plant in the bunker, or trying to use his posting as a pretext to retrieve for the perilous postwar years the many valuables he had cached in Berlin.

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1945: German soldiers for cowardice

2 comments April 27th, 2012 Headsman

Throughout the last days of the Third Reich, it ruthlessly forced its desperate conscripts by threat of summary execution into service to slow the overwhelming Soviet army.

Borrowing a page from Gen. Ferdinand Schoerner‘s no-mercy demonstrative hangings of any “straggler” found behind front lines without orders, Goebbels

issued a radio proclamation to the trapped troops [of Berlin]: “Any man found not doing his duty will be hanged from a lamp post after a summary judgment. Moreover, placards will be attached to the corpses stating: ‘I have been hanged here because I am too cowardly to defend the capital of the Reich. I have been hanged because I did not believe in the Fuhrer. I am a deserter and for this reason I shall not see this turning point in history.

SS members, aware that they would be in for the worst of it after the war (and that their mandatory blood-type tattoos would make them easy to identify) were the ones sufficiently motivated to impose this policy. One German in the city at the time recalled the horror of seeing

boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, ‘he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.’ When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics.

Although it’s not specifically an execution story, the horrifying consequences of this lethal paranoia under siege are the theme of the West German film Die Brücke, in which a rare veteran sergeant looking after some child-conscripts is shot by a patrol when he can’t produce orders … leaving the children alone to be butchered pointlessly defending a bridge.

“This event occurred on April 27, 1945,” the film concludes about its (fictional) plot. “It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.”

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Sigmund Rascher, feared science

10 comments April 26th, 2012 Headsman

It’s on this date in 1945 that Sigmund Rascher is supposed to have been summarily executed in Dachau.

If that’s what happened, it’s no more than Rascher (English Wikipedia page | German) deserved.

This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.

Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.

From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:

  • high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
  • freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
  • blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.

Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.

In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.

They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.

(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)


Elsewhere …


Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.

— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. Via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Ewald Ehlers lynched

1 comment April 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, the commandant of Waffen-Grenadier Regiment 73 was lynched by his own men.

These were remnants of a regiment within the notorious Dirlewanger brigade comprised largely of ex-prisoners set at liberty to do the dirtiest of SS work.

So there was a certain poetic justice to Ehlers’ fate. An SS man since 1938, Ehlers had fought all over in the bloody preceding years (he’d been in the army and the Luftwaffe during the interwar period), and served in several different SS formations.

The Dirlewanger forces at this point had been beaten to a pulp by the Red Army, and were bleeding deserters every day. The remnants of Ehlers’ regiment mustered on this day in an attempt to reorganize. Instead, Ehlers was lynched by his men for reasons unknown: his previous turn commanding Dachau, where many of his men might have once been imprisoned, is one possible factor.


April 25, 1945 is more illustriously marked in the annals of World War II as Elbe Day, when American troops coming from the west and Soviet troops from the east met at Torgau on the Elbe River, splitting the Reich in two.


The canned publicity shot of U.S. and Soviet officers meeting in Torgau.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: A day in the death penalty around the Reich

1 comment April 24th, 2012 Headsman

April 24, 1945 –

Lehrter Street Prison, Berlin. Bavarian Social Democratic politician and trade union activist Ernst Schneppenhorst — who spent most of the war years under detention — was executed by the SS.


Moritz Police Barracks, Berlin. While most petty criminals being held by the police were released as the war’s conclusion drew near, an exception was made for four gay policemen.

Otto Jordan, Reinhard Höpfner, Willi Jenoch and a man named Bautz were, instead, summarily shot at Berlin’s Moritz police barracks. In 2011, a memorial plaque honoring the four was installed near the place of their execution.


Regensburg. The pastor of Regensburg Cathedral, Dr. Johann Maier, was hanged here for participating in the previous day’s public demonstration begging the Nazi government to surrender to approaching American forces in order to minimize destruction.

When the government responded by turning water cannons on the crowd, Maier began to protest:

We have not come here to make a disturbance; we Christians do not register any indignation against divinely ordained authority. We have come simply with a request: we ask that the city be surrendered for the following reasons … (Source)

Rather than let him enumerate his reasons, the divinely ordained authority seized him on the spot and hauled him away for a summary trial that night, followed by a hanging and gibbeting the following morning. A pensioner who protested Maier’s arrest was hanged alongside him, while a policeman who argued the point at the foot of the gallows was promptly shot there and demonstratively laid out to make the group a trio.

When the Americans entered Regensburg on April 27, Maier’s corpse was still strung up in the town marketplace, bearing a placard denouncing him as a “saboteur.”

Today, however, the memorial plaque for him in the cathedral salutes him for “giving his life for the preservation of Regensburg.”


Johann Maier’s grave market in the city cathedral. Image (c) Adam Maroney, and used with permission.

Somewhere in Southern Germany. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a story on this date attributed to no exact date or locale reporting on the recent, routine execution by the U.S. army of a German civilian believed to be a spy.

It seemed like an innocent enough offer at the time. A friendly German civilian approached soldiers from the U.S. 7th Army, offering to help set up a civilian government. But he broke down after being questioned, admitting he was a spy bent on sabotage. The spy was executed, but that wasn’t the end of trouble for the advancing U.S. army, says CBC correspondent Sam Ross, reporting on developments for the U.S. troops.

Remaining pockets of German soldiers are now attempting to ambush the Americans. Nevertheless, the U.S. 7th has managed to take some prisoners from the German People’s Army, the Nazis’ last-ditch militia composed of very young and very old men. And there are other people to contend with on the roads behind Allied lines; German civilians are returning home after fleeing from war, and displaced persons freed from forced-labour camps are heading home on foot to Russia, Belgium, Poland and France.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Massacres of Treuenbrietzen

1 comment April 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945 — the same date when, in Berlin, a last mopping-up terminated the remaining participants in the Valkyrie assassination plot, such as Albrecht Haushofer — successive war crimes by the German and Soviet armies slew hundreds at the nearby village of Treuenbrietzen.

In the German installment of the Massaker von Treuenbrietzen, the army led 131 Italian internees taken prisoner after that erstwhile ally had gone over to the Allies in 1943 out to a gravel pit, and gunned them all down. (Stone markers now label the site.)

Only four men survived the mass execution.

“I can not explain this miracle,” said Edo Magnalardo, an Italian who played dead until the heap of corpses was buried, and then climbed out and found some Russians to surrender to/be liberated by. This German article records Magnalardo’s recollections of events, and the long and fruitless struggle for an official investigation.

For Germans in Treuenbrietzen, surrendering to the Red Army was a much less liberating experience … not that anybody had a choice in the matter.

Beginning on this date, Soviet soldiers carried out a horrifying rampage that left upwards of a thousand Treuenbrietzen men dead.

Apparently provoked when a Russian officer celebrating the village’s capture had been shot dead during a brief German reconquest, Soviet troops shot an estimated 270 or so civilians at the edge of the nearby forest on April 23. Over the next two weeks, they kept shooting: some 800 to 1,000 men (mostly) are believed to have been killed in this way by the end of the war. As for the women … there would soon be a need to set up a gynecological station in a local office, and require that all report for VD testing.

Since Treuenbrietzen ended up in communist East Germany after the war, this part of the massacre was seriously downplayed for a long time.

But no matter how officially favored the winning side in the war, the grim fate of so many noncombatants in Treuenbrietzen surely shames those who participated in it. As one survivor put it in the German press, “He who takes revenge can not be celebrated as a liberator, even though he has helped to end this disastrous war.”

This date is locally commemorated in Treuenbrietzen for both massacres, and both Italian and Russian diplomats have participated in memorial ceremonies.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Wilhelm Cauer, but not Helmuth Weidling

1 comment April 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, the brilliant scientist Wilhelm Cauer was summarily executed by Red Army soldiers advancing into besieged Berlin.

Cauer hailed from a rich lineage of academics.

Although his career prospects in Nazi Germany were ultimately limited owing to that lineage’s kinship to Frederick the Great’s Jewish banker, they were not so limited that he was not able to become a university professor and one of the founding figures in the field of engineering network synthesis filters. The elliptical filter is known as the “Cauer filter” in his honor.*

By the end of World War II, he was, like millions of less-distinguished countrymen and -women, merely a person in the way of a terrible conflagration.

Cauer succeeded in evacuating his family west, where the American and not the Soviet army would overtake it — but for reasons unclear he then returned himself to Berlin. His son Emil remembered (pdf) the sad result.

The last time I saw my father was two days before the American Forces occupied the small town of Witzenhausen in Hesse, about 30 km from Gottingen. We children were staying there with relatives in order to protect us from air raids. Because rail travel was already impossible, my father was using a bicycle. Military Police was patrolling the streets stopping people and checking their documents. By that time, all men over 16 were forbidden to leave towns without a permit, and on the mere suspicion of being deserters, many were hung summarily in the market places. Given this atmosphere of terror and the terrible outrages which Germans had inflicted on the peoples of the Soviet Union, I passionately tried to persuade my father to hide rather than return to Berlin, since it was understandable that the Red Army would take its revenge. But he decided to go back, perhaps out of solidarity with his colleagues still in Berlin, or just due to his sense of duty, or out of sheer determination to carry out what he had decided to do.

Seven months after the ending of that war, my mother succeeded in reaching Berlin and found the ruins of our house in a southern suburb of the city. None of the neighbors knew about my father’s fate. But someone gave identification papers to my mother which were found in a garden of the neighborhood. The track led to a mass grave with eight bodies where my mother could identify her husband and another man who used to live in our house. By April 22, 1945, the Red Army had crossed the city limits of Berlin at several points. Although he was a civilian and not a member of the Nazi Party, my father and other civilians were executed by soldiers of the Red Army. The people who witnessed the executions were taken into Soviet captivity, and it was not possible to obtain details of the exact circumstances of my father’s death.

Cauer’s name was actually on a list of scientists the Soviets were looking to recruit, not eliminate. Presumably he and those other civilians who shared his nameless grave fell foul of the occupying army in some incidental way and were shot out of hand in the fog of war.


By contrast, April 22 was the lucky day for Wehrmacht General Helmuth Weidling.

Weidling had been forced by overwhelming Russian power to withdraw from a position and an enraged Hitler ordered him summarily shot.**

Fortunately, it was not effected so “summarily” that Weidling wasn’t able to get his side of the story in and have the execution order revoked. Lucky Helmuth was within hours, uh, “promoted” to commander of the Berlin Defence Area, which is supposed to have led him to remark, “I’d rather be shot than have this honour.”

This was not to be his fate.

Instead, after a week’s overseeing the suicidal exertions of his underaged, underarmed Volkssturm militia, it fell to Weidling on May 2 to issue the order directing remaining garrisons in Berlin to lay down their arms.

On April 30, 1945, the Führer committed suicide, and thus abandoned those who had sworn loyalty to him. According to the Führer’s order, you German soldiers would have had to go on fighting for Berlin despite the fact that our ammunition has run out and despite the general situation which makes our further resistance meaningless. I order the immediate cessation of resistance.

The devastated Berlin of the Soviet encirclement was Weidling’s last glimpse of his homeland: he was flown to the USSR as a prisoner of war and died there in captivity in 1955.

* Also working against the big brain’s career path in academia: “few people could appreciate the vast potential of Cauer’s special field of work … for mathematicians, he seemed too involved in applied sciences, and for electrical engineers his contributions included too much mathematics.” These days, Cauer’s disciplined application of mathematical principles to the field of network filtering is precisely what he’s remembered for.

** This was a notably bad day for der Fuhrer: it was also on April 22 when the impotence of the German army’s remaining shreds caused him to launch into that bunker tirade that has spawned a thousand Internet parodies.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: The women of the Endphaseverbrechen at Neuengamme

1 comment April 21st, 2012 Headsman

On the night of April 21, 1945 (possibly verging into April 22), 12 women political prisoners were hanged at Hamburg’s Neuengamme concentration camp.

This forced labor camp had its own nasty history during the war, including medical experiments on children that would get the camp doctor hanged after the war. Those unfortunates had just been disposed of the day before.

It was in the spirit of disposing that Neuengamme on April 21 received 71 political prisoners from the Fühlsbüttel prison/satellite camp. This site, one of the very first concentration camps in Germany, was being emptied out (as Neuengamme also soon would be) with the approach of Allied forces from the west: many Fühlsbüttel prisoners were released outright, while several hundred were sent on a death march to another camp.

These special 71, who weren’t especially major antifascists and hadn’t been convicted of anything, thought their transfer to Neuengamme was just a halfway house to their own release — whether directly by the Germans, or via the imminent arrival of Germany’s foes.

All were elated. They showed each other pictures of their husbands and children (Erika Etter did not know that her husband had been executed), made their clothes as nice as possible. Erika, the youngest, wore white knee socks and borrowed lipstick, with her pretty hair down. (From the German Wikipedia page about these killings)

They were in for an unpleasant surprise: although Nazi Germany was going down, there were elements within it still looking to cripple the Left of whatever would emerge postwar. These 71 people — 58 men and 13 women — were communists, or White Rose activists, or other ideological foes whom the camp bureaucracy had tagged as “non-transferrable” elements.

Annemarie Ladewig, a young artist who’d been booted from the academy due to a partial Jewish ancestry, painted this watercolor of a dancer. (More.) Ladewig’s brother and father were among the 58 male political prisoners killed at Neuengamme over the next few days.

They were eliminated over the period from April 21 through April 24.

The women were the first to be put to death on this night, hanged naked in two groups of six. Either the aforementioned Erika Etter or else the actress Hanne Mertens (German link) was killed separately; the other was hanged, along with these eleven (all links below are to German Wikipedia pages):

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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